Self-driving cars have long been prophesied in various seemingly far-fetched sci-fi novels for as long as most can remember, but now they have finally arrived. In our world perpetual innovation where every company is always looking for the next big thing to maintain competitive advantage, Uber is leading the ride-sharing industry—and I don’t mean just in market share.
In Pittsburgh, partially autonomous vehicles are hitting the asphalt and picking up passengers. Fear not, however, for a driver will remain behind the wheel to interfere should they need to. Also, only passengers who agree to the possibility of being randomly assigned a self-driving car will brave the roads with a computer driver. What’s more, such bold passengers will get a free ride.
Journalists tested the waters themselves just this past week. Each car (all of which are, for now, Ford Fusions) is retrofitted with light mapping systems, radar, sensors, and cameras. The reports were quite optimistic. They stated that the “the Fusion smoothly navigated many of the bustling urban streets of Pittsburgh, breezing over the Three Sisters bridges above the Allegheny River and Safely avoiding bicyclists and walkers on vibrant Penn Avenue.” It was not perfect, though. When facing complicated situations, the car gave control back to the driver in order to safely navigate.
Only Uber employees with specific training operate the autonomous vehicles, which helps customers’ peace of mind considering this technology is so new. They are told to loosely keep their hands on the steering wheel throughout the entire ride and to remain ready to assume control throughout the entire ride. The dashboard gives them notice with various sounds and specific color-coded displays. The passenger is kept in the loop as well because there is a touch screen in the back seat displaying information about the ride, like a location for instance.
One may question why a city like Pittsburgh is the testing ground for such innovative technology, but the solution is rather simple. It’s the headquarters of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center. It also, however, is an excellent testing ground because it boasts a combination of many bridges and different terrains in addition to its reputation for inclement weather.
Regardless, the early signs of Uber’s self-driving cars are certainly positive, which is more than most can say considering the rumors surrounding both Google and Apple. It will be intriguing, to say the least, to see if it causes a paradigm shift in the automotive industry, or to see if it fades into insignificance along with so many other failed technologies.